Survivors Speak!                  October 2021
Rolling Through the Season
We’re not printing this newsletter in an orange font, but we are aware that we’ve reached the end of the month — and Halloween. We hope you enjoy as much candy as you desire! 

We’ve got some sweet news — in fact, lots of it. Penny Okamoto has joined our team as the new executive director for Survivors Empowered. We couldn’t be more excited! Read more about Penny in this issue. 

We’re still leaders of this organization we founded, but we are sharing some of the responsibilities of managing it so that we can launch what we expect will be a very rewarding 2022. We’re calling it the “Honor with Action” tour, and we’ve already told you a bit about our goal: We’ll be traveling around the country from January through December, meeting many of you, some for the first time, and spreading our message about gun violence and what we can do together to combat it. 

Check out our prototype logo for the tour! (thank you, designer Wayne Kaplan!) 

In this issue, we profile the impressive Journey 4ward, a wide-ranging Texas group founded by survivor Cathy Felts-Taylor, a grieving mother. 

Here’s another sneak peek: We’re wrapping up plans for a film festival and discussion that will feature some of the most moving and thought-provoking pieces about gun violence we’ve seen in recent years. Stay tuned!

As usual, we’ve got a news roundup and survivors’ voices. The bloodshed keeps mounting, while effective government responses to it stall. We weep, and we get even more determined to do something about it. 

We’re also looking forward to the end of next month — Giving Tuesday — and the holiday season, when we hope you’ll decide to support our tour. We appreciate you and the many different types of contributions you make to our mutual cause. 

In solidarity, and moving along, 

Sandy and Lonnie

Welcome To Our New Executive Director!

Penny Okamoto (pictured at right with Sandy Phillips) has hit the ground running as our new executive director, with a fount of ideas and plentiful experience to fuel her new role. Welcome, Penny! 

Sandy and Lonnie have known and been impressed by  Penny for years, watching her effective activities in Oregon and nationally. “She has done a lot already, and will give us an opportunity to move Survivors Empowered into the future,” says Sandy. “She is terrific, and we’re so glad she’s on board!” 

One of Penny’s current activities is developing the gun violence prevention film festival that Survivors Empowered will launch next spring, concurrent with the 2022 Honor with Action tour. She is also working diligently with Sandy, Lonnie, and the entire Survivors Empowered team to make the coming year and road trip a smashing success.

Of course, Penny is laser-focused on continuing her public policy efforts aimed at reducing gun violence through policy change. She is a relentless voice for reform, and expects to be collaborating with survivors, partner groups and advocates; meeting with policymakers; and educating the public. In her role as executive director, she also will work hard to help Survivors Empowered lift the voices of survivors and raise the funds necessary to support a successful tour and future efforts. 

Penny lives in Oregon, and for 20 years has been a force for change there through Ceasefire Oregon and the Ceasefire Oregon Education Foundation. Inclusion is an important goal for Penny, and she plans to make sure people and voices from across the spectrum are embraced by Survivors Empowered.

She is eager to continue and expand the coalitions in which Survivors Empowered already participates, and make sure that any intolerance that provokes deadly attacks — such as the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida — is confronted. She’s concerned about domestic violence and the role of guns in deadly consequences as well, and plans more alliances. International partnerships are important to her too. 

Penny is avid about the thought leadership and educational role she believes Survivors Empowered can expand. “There’s been a bloody increase in gun violence, and I want survivors telling their stories and affecting policy everywhere,” she says. 

She also wants deep explorations of what’s fueling gun violence, from the economics of the gun trade to the grip manufacturers have had on policymakers. And she’s not shy about calling to account any and all responsible for stalled efforts. Penny wants to protect people from gun violence — not politicians from lobbyists. 

“We are so glad we’ve got Penny’s energy, boldness and intelligence in our corner!” Lonnie says.

Texas Survivors Journey 4ward Together

Give and you will receive.

That is what Cathy Felts-Taylor discovered after her son, Corey, had his life taken by gun violence on July 19, 2013. The tremendous loss, and her search for support, led Felts-Taylor to found Journey 4ward, a survivors group whose membership is composed mostly of other mothers who lost children to gun violence.

Based in Mansfield, Texas, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the organization is a place where members can find support for their ongoing pain, socialize and use their experience to help other survivors and their community.

“It’s a sense of peace because I know that I’m not in this alone,” said Felts-Taylor. “I know that there’s somebody else out there that truly gets what I’m going through and gets that I might have a bad day and gets that on my child’s birthday I may want to be by myself.”

It was solitude she sought in the initial weeks after the shooting. But Felts-Taylor then realized she needed to talk with somebody who understood the unique trauma of losing a child to violence. So she started reaching out to other mothers in her community who had lost children.

“Within three or four months I had found 10 people in my own community who were looking for support just like me,” she said.

What started with lunches and brunches has since grown into a nonprofit organization with multiple programs.

Journey 4ward offers free trauma counseling and EMDR (eye movement desensitization) therapy to crime victims. The group’s members support each other with phone calls and texts, vacation together and attend retreats. Each May four or five of the women participate in Circle of Mothers, a yearly weekend retreat created by the mother of Trayvon Martin, killed in Florida.

“Sometimes we’ll go bowling; sometimes we’ll just have dinner,” said Felts-Taylor.

Members also visit middle and high schools to talk with students about the consequences of gun violence and “how it doesn’t just stop at the family. It affects the whole community — your church, your friends, your extended family,” she said.  

“We also talk to them about how they can be a voice in the community just by, if they hear something that’s going to happen, speak up. Say something,” she said. “When somebody’s in danger, that’s not snitching.”

On Oct. 6, Journey 4ward’s members responded to their first school shooting, at Timberview High School in Arlington, Texas. Two people, a teacher and a student, were shot when a student opened fire inside a classroom.

Felts-Taylor and another survivor made themselves available to hundreds of parents who gathered at  the Mansfield Independent School District Center for the Performing Arts, about 5 miles from the high school, to be reunited with their kids.

The next day, Journey 4ward’s trauma counselors talked to Timberview students, especially about triggers, which can occur long after the shooting ends.

“For me, it was a learning experience because the next time — and I feel like there will be a next time — I’ll be a little bit more prepared on what to expect and what to do,” said Felts-Taylor. 

Mindfulness Program Set to Return

Survivors Empowered’s mindfulness training program for individuals affected by gun violence will resume at the University of California at San Diego in February.

In partnership with UCSD’s Center for Mindfulness and mindfulness instructor Shelley Tygielski, Survivors Empowered launched the free online training program in January 2020, with 40 survivors from around the country taking part.

The center’s instructors train students to become teachers of mindfulness, which has proven to be a powerful tool for helping survivors reduce stress and heal from their trauma.  

Under the vision of Survivors Empowered founders Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, and Tygielski, students will become teachers and form, around the country, micro-communities of mindfulness where survivors can find healing and support.

“Survivors are really the ones who are the most effective teachers and healers,” Tygielski said. “They can say, ‘I know what you’re going through’ and mean it.” 

Justice Dept. Settles With Church Shooting Victims

The Justice Department agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by the families of nine people whose lives were taken, and five people who survived a shooting by a self-described white supremacist on June 17, 2015, inside a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Each family of the nine people killed inside the 200-year-old Mother Emmanuel AME Church will receive between $6 million and $7.5 million, and each survivor $5 million, the Justice Department announced on Oct. 28. The victims, who were gathered for bible study, included the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor and a state senator.

The families and survivors said the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check’s system failed to prevent the shooter, who was prohibited from possessing a firearm because he had been charged with felony drug possession, from purchasing the weapon he used from a licensed dealer.

“No amount of compensation will ever replace my father’s life,” Eliana Pinckney said.

“But through the help and the opportunities that the government and the people standing behind me have provided, it allows me and my sister to have the opportunity to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to make sure that my father’s legacy doesn’t go away.”

What Survivors Are Saying
"It's extremely important to make sure we're closing dangerous loopholes and keeping guns out of the hands of people like the man who killed her." Susan Browder, How a Mom Who Lost Daughter to Domestic Violence Honors Her Memory by Working to Save Lives

"As a gun owner, you have a responsibility to ensure that that firearm is used by you. Not by your toddler, not by a criminal who steals it to use it for criminal purposes." Whitney Austin, Shooting survivor awarded federal grant to help promote responsible gun ownership in Louisville

“We’re like the walking wounded. Until we deal with the issues of trauma on a personal level as well as in our communities, then we’ll continue to be a little [gerbil] wheel that continues to spin.” Brenda Mitchell, Survivors And Their Loved Ones Face Immense Trauma From Gun Violence

“I had a gun to my head. I was called literally everything you can possibly dream up to be called and basically told that I was not worthy of anything. I had come to the realization that I was either going to be killed by him or kill myself.” Brandy Switzer, Candlelight vigil honors local victims, survivors of domestic violence
In the News

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a package of gun-reform bills on Oct. 28.

One bill prohibits anyone but licensed gunsmiths or firearms dealers from possessing or selling “receivers” and unfinished frames. Receivers are used to form the lower part of guns and can be combined by someone with little experience to make a functioning semiautomatic weapon. It also bans the possession and sale of finished frames and receivers without serial numbers.

Hochul also signed legislation banning the sale of “ghost” guns. The use of the unregistered and un-serialized weapons has proliferated, especially among criminals and people unable to legally purchase a weapon, and they are difficult for law enforcement to trace.

A third bill signed by Hochul adds firearms capable of being concealed and designed to look like toys to the definition of “defined gun” and bans their design, manufacture and sale.

"Gun violence is a public health and public safety crisis that must be dealt with aggressively," said Hochul.

In other news ... 

Giffords, the gun-violence-prevention organization founded by former congresswoman and survivor Gabby Giffords, published an interview with Ryan Busse, a former gun industry executive who joined the organization as an advisor. Busse's just-released book, Gunfight, chronicles the gun lobby's radicalization and prioritizing of profits over safety. 

A New Jersey man was charged with buying 13 kits to make untraceable ghost guns at a show in Pennsylvania. 

Lovely Logo! 
Here is a sneak peak at one of the logos we are considering for "Honor with Action," the nationwide tour Sandy and Lonnie are undertaking starting in January. 

Published in October 2019, Tragedy in Aurora: The Culture of Mass Shootings in America, is Tom Diaz's account of the death of Lonnie and Sandy Phillips' daughter, Jessi, and the political polarization and stagnation behind the country's failure to enact common-sense policies to stem gun violence. 

The book can be found on Amazon here.  

Help For Survivors
  • Survivors Empowered has a roster of dedicated trauma therapists who help survivors of gun violence heal from the aftermath. Visit our website for more information. 
  • We continue to look for volunteers across the country who want to help build coalitions and work with survivors of gun violence in their states. If interested in supporting our efforts, please contact us here.
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